The primary sources of information covering this period have been:
‘The Official History of
‘Wounds and Scars’ has remained a mine of information as the 2 FA were located in the same general area as Hal.
‘The Western Front 1916-1918’ by Peter Cochrane, published for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2004, is a photographic record of the Australians on the Western Front, and brings to life the otherwise bare facts.
‘The War Diary of the 1st Australian Field Artillery Brigade’. Available on-line from the Australian War Memorial.
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There are no entries
for the 14th or 15th December, but on the 16th
the long-awaited move to
For the rest of the diary Hal was located in the war zone
known as the Western Front, as distinct from the German / Russian conflict area
known as the Eastern Front. Following
the carnage of 1916 the Germans made a surprise but carefully planned retreat
behind well-prepared defences, and during 1917 the Western Front settled into
trench warfare. The opposing trenches
separated by ‘No Man’s Land’ stretched from the
The trench lines stayed much the same throughout1917, with no permanent changes except at the Ypres Salient. The layout of the trenches show there were two main lines- the Fire Trench separated from No Man’s Land by barbed wire defences, and a Second Line Trench some distance behind the fire Line. There were many smaller ‘communications trenches’ or ‘saps’. Each trench, or section of trench, was given an identifying name.
There were many individual actions on both sides, which could upset this idealised plan, even though changes might only be temporary. They could be simply forays to test out the enemy defences, but some were designed with a specific end in view, such as taking out a particular gun battery or vantage point. It was all set against sniper fire and a continual barrage of heavy gun fire from both sides, with danger from shells exploding nearby (including shells containing poisonous gas).
The incident at
His companion, Vin Bertouch, is not identified.
Etaples was a sort of ‘boot camp’ used to toughen up the soldiers, both physically and mentally, before they went on to the front line. Discipline was draconian, and it was not a good place to be on a charge the moment you arrived.
The ‘Bull Ring’ was the name given to the training area in the coastal sand-dunes at Etaples. The troops were worked hard from early morning to night.
‘Gas Tests’ are mentioned several times in the coming months. They were partly to familiarise the troops with the particular type of gas-mask in use and partly to test out the gas-masks themselves. The tests were not without danger, as the death of a New Zealander shows.
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Hal was officially a member of 2FA, and had to report to the Artillery Brigade Headquarters for transfer to the Artillery. According to the Official Record the transfer took place on the 2nd January, at which date Hal became a ‘Gunner’ with the 1st Artillery Brigade.
For a ‘boot camp’ a pretty good Christmas Dinner. The previous year he had been with the
friends he had made in
His 7 days ‘Confined to Barracks’ ended this evening.
No longer confined to barracks he visited ‘Paris Plage’ in nearby Le Touquet; which was (and is) a fashionable coastal resort for Parisians. Len Uren was a friend from the Dental unit at Abbeywood.
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Letter to Red Dowling. In this instance the name looks like “Red’, but at other mentions of this person it looks more like ‘Rea’ or ‘Bea’. He also corresponded with other members of the Dowling family.
Another gas test. Hal reported first to Divisional Headquarters, where he was drafted into the 1st Brigade (mention is made later of a 2nd Brigade). He then appears to have gone to the Headquarters of the 1st Brigade, and been retained there rather than be sent on to join an Artillery Battery in the field.
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2 January 1917
Many horses were used by the Artillery – mostly for hauling guns and supplies, but many of the officers rode horses whenever possible. Hal appears to have enjoyed working with, and caring for, the horses.
‘Green Curve’ was a collection of short stories written by E.D. Swinton, first published in 1914.
Over the next few weeks Hal describes some of the appalling conditions he experienced – the ubiquitous mud, the constant shelling, the rotting remains of men and horses, the desolation and ruins everywhere. After that he barely mentions them, but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t there – they remained ever present.
‘Devil’s Wood’ is 'Delville Wood’, the scene of a battle in 1916, now a desolate spot with the woods destroyed.
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Started in 1st Brigade Headquarters Office. On 11th January this appears to have become a permanent position which kept him busy.
1st Brigade Headquarters moved from Longueval, near Delville Woods to Buire. This was the start of a series of moves between 19-30 January; which the War Diary of the 1st Brigade shows that Hal recorded accurately. In this instance the moves were associated with the amalgamation of some Battery Units, and the replacement or re-location of others.
Over the next few months there are many mentions of
locations within the
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One big difference from the conditions at Gallipoli was that if the sector was quiet at the time, it was possible for a posting to be out of range of the shells, but not of course of the continual noise of the artillery on both sides. Soldiers could be billeted on farms or with local families, with the chance of a wash, some hot food, and shelter from the worst of the weather. Even when they were on the front- line, whenever possible the men were relieved every three to seven days, to go to ‘rest areas’ where they could have a shower, some clean clothes, some relaxation, and get to know the French people. It was even possible to do some sightseeing.
It seems amazing to me that even only a few miles behind the lines there could be some semblance of normality in those villages which were not too badly damaged. Relations with the locals were usually very good. There was opportunity for trade, be it at a local café or with the street pedlars. The Australians were good customers with money to spend- their pay 6 shillings a day, far higher than the 1 shilling a day of the British soldiers. It may be worth recording that unlike some Hal would never have been tempted by the ready availability of cheap French wine or champagne – he was strictly teetotal, and I can remember him saying that sarsaparilla was his drink.
Hal went to
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This is not the first time Hal has mentioned his ears are troubling him. It may have been due to the constant noise of the guns, as deafness in later years was common among members of the Artillery. It may, however, have some bearing on the severity of his ear trouble in June and July 1917.
‘Beaucoup de travail’= ‘a lot of work’.
The winter of 1916-17 was the worst French winter in 40 years. First the rain turned everything to mud, and then the snow and extreme cold froze the mud and everything else. As Peter Cochrane describes it in “The Western Front, 1916-18”
‘Hot tea froze in a minute. Bread, like rock, would not break or slice. Ink went hard. The nightly ration parties brought in water supplies in solid blocks, and soldiers chopped them into bits that would fit into a billy.’
And, of course, on the front line the men were mostly exposed to the cold, sheltering in dugouts, or little ‘humpies’ or ‘possies’ they made for themselves.
Hal experienced all this, and the frozen boots and the ink freezing solid are mentioned. I cannot tell from the enhanced image whether he wrote this in pencil or ink. If the latter, he must have found a way of unfreezing the ink.
The photograph of the Australian soldier collecting a cup of water from under a frozen tank was taken at Longueval in January 1917, the very spot near Devil’s Wood where Hal was before and after all the moves in January.
The mention of ‘ink freezing’ has made me wonder how Hal kept himself supplied with ink. Nearly all the Diaries are written in ink, and there is a fountain pen in the Souvenir Box, but liquid ink couldn’t have been easy to carry around.
Hal often refers to a ‘bit of a stunt’, in some of which he took an active part. There is no way of telling from his Diaries how large a stunt was. 300 prisoners seems a lot. In this case Hal ‘listened in’ on the phone-line.
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Frank Green was still with the 2FA who were in the same general area as Hal, but like him, moved around a lot.
Must have free time as writing again. There is no further mention of ‘When Agnes Phones’. I suspect that most of Hal’s ‘stories’ were modelled on those of O. Henry, an American writer whom Hal admired. O. Henry’s stories usually had a ‘twist in the tail’, with the denouement in the last sentence or two being completely unexpected.
Mac was now with the 1st Anzac Light horse.
“Furphy’s Fancies’ was originally mentioned in October 1914, when it was described as ‘published’, apparently being published again.
At the end of January the 1st Brigade War Diary had stated that ‘communications were very bad’ and an effort was to be made to improve them. Hal had had some signalling training the previous year whilst on Salisbury Plains, which he had enjoyed. It looks as though, although still at the 1st Artillery Brigade Headquarters, Hal was switched from Clerking to Signalling. On the 19th February he experienced what must have been an appalling night trying to locate a break in the phone line. Many more ‘breaks in the line’ occurred in the following months.
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Whilst in the trenches the men mostly had to obtain shelter and find somewhere to sleep by digging or building themselves ‘dugouts’ or ‘possies’. Here Hal is concerned with improving his dugout – getting hold of some timber was a real prize. The picture of an Australian in a ‘possie’ was taken in May 1917. “Daytime was often the best time to get some sleep, as the trenches came alive with activity under cover of darkness.” (Peter Cockrane). Hal often notes the shifts when he is on duty and many of them are in the night.
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‘Bayonet’ and ‘Guerd’ are the names of German trenches. This was the start of a planned retreat by the Germans to their well-prepared positions behind the Hindenburg Line.
High Wood is near Delville Wood and Longueval. The tanks must have been British, as no one else used tanks until April 1917. Probably a relic of the fighting late in 1916, and probably the first tanks Hal had seen.
‘Hullay’ probably ‘Heilly’ (see Map 2), but possibly ‘Halloy’, 6 kilometres east of Doullens.
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Time out of action. Met Mac near Albert. Hal was previously in Behencourt in January.
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‘Sagnets’ unidentified. Writing not very clear.
The Germans retreated from Bapaume, and it was in Allied hands until March 1918, when the Germans reoccupied it.
This is the first mention of the horse ‘Marconi’, which from its name was probably attached to the signallers within the 1st Artillery Brigade Headquarters. Hal enjoyed riding and looking after the horses. He mentions three further rides that week.
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Mac (Miles McCabe) was now with the ‘Anzac Light Horse’, but wanted to get back to his original regiment, the 4th Light Horse.
In the Diary the month is incorrectly shown as ‘3’ (March).
Chivoo is generally spelt ‘Shivoo’, and is slang for a party or celebration.
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ASC may be Artillery Signals Corp. I wonder who got the tent he had slept in the previous couple of nights. Not sure whether ‘two others’ are people or tents.
The Australian Comforts Fund had moved up with the Australian troops occupying Bapaume, and set up a Canteen and other amenities among the ruins. Hal mentions going to the (outdoor?) cinema several times. The contrast between the nostalgia caused by the familiar Australian scenes on the films and the surrounding devastation and reminders of war are very telling.
This is the first occasion Hal has written anything in code for a long time. A ‘bedroom utensil’ must be a chamber-pot.
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The Germans launched their planned counterattack early this morning, utilising 15 Battalions. At Lagnicourt (off Map 2 – further east along the road from Bapaume to Cambrai) they captured several Batteries of the 1st Australian Division’s Artillery, but a vigorous counterattack by four Australian Battalions recaptured most of the guns, and forced a premature German withdrawal. This was probably the ‘recovery of lost ground’ Hal refers to. Harold Uren, the brother of his friend Len Uren, was killed at the ‘Battle of Lagnicourt’.
Hal moved to 101st
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Return to Headquarters of Field Artillery Brigade.
Germans using planes to bomb targets with some success.
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Did the riots happen, or was this just wishful thinking?
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‘John Gilpin act‘ when Marconi ‘got away' as Hal was rounding up the horses, refers to a comic poem, ‘The Diverting History of John Gilpin’ who lost control of his horse, which carried him ten miles further on than ‘he had intended’. This was written by William Cowper in 1782.
The singing of the larks above the battlefields is a well attested fact. ‘The Lark Ascending’ is a beautiful composition for solo violin and Orchestra, written by Ralph Vaughan- Williams. It was generally believed to have been inspired by the larks he heard whilst serving on the Western Front, but it was, in fact, started before the war, although not completed until after the war.
Visited the scene of the ‘Battle of Lagnicourt’ (see 15April). The flowers were possibly to lay on the grave of Len Uren’s brother.
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Beaumetz is off Map 2, and lies west of Doullens (see map 5).
The ‘phone pit’ must have been only for signalling use, as Hal writes about his ‘comfortable quarters’ , which appear to have been in the cellar of a ruined house. The remains of the garden, as with the skylark singing, shows that nature can be surprising in its ability to survive in the middle of the devastation of war.
Moved to Bahencourt.
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These entries are too faint to decipher, but during this period Hal moved with the Headquarters of 1st Artillery Brigade to Bavelincourt Chateau, near to Bahencourt, and Contay. When I Googled up Bavelincourt Chateau in June 2017, I found it was for sale at just over 1,000,000 euros. Described as a 19th century Chateau, ,in more than 20 acres of parkland, with a lake, it has 12 bedrooms, and from the photographs it is being lived in, and looks in good repair.
Hal’s Official Service Record shows that on the 6th June he was transferred from the 1st Australian Field Artillery, where he was a ‘Gunner’, to the 1st Division Signal Company, where he was a ‘Sapper’. Hal does not mention this in his diary, and as he still seemed to be attached to the 1st Artillery Brigade Headquarters it appears to have made little immediate difference to his work.
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The Allies tunnelling companies had laid mines under the
length of the Messines Ridge, which was held by the Germans and overlooked
Artillery Division Sports Meeting at Henencourt.
13 June Although a keen sportsman Hal took time out from the Divisional Sports, and spent a peaceful interlude sitting in a Wood, with Marconi grazing nearby. ‘Montigny’ is ‘Montigny-sur-l’hellue’, and ‘Mulliens’ is ‘Mulliens-au-Bois. Both are near St. Gratian.
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Moved from Bavelincourt to Spring Garden Camp, a staging post near Albert.
‘Vein’ unidentified – part of a tactical exercise.
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The meaning of the Morse Code entry- UNE MTU CHOPINS WALSES BNM VERA- is unclear, as are the entries of ‘Cut Outs” for Min and Mrs Warr. Similar ‘Cut Out’ entries have been mentioned in earlier Diaries.
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The sketch of a horse’s head must surely be of
‘Marconi’. The address for Lionel Lawson
shows Hal knew the young violinist had returned to
The Western Front - 1917